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Cardinals vs. Falcons preview

11/27/2014

When: 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta TV: Fox

The Arizona Cardinals are in first place at 9-2. The Atlanta Falcons are in first place at 4-7.

Yes, there is a striking disparity between the two NFC teams as they prepare to do battle Sunday. It will be interesting to see whether that translates into a mismatch on the field.

The Falcons have yet to win a game outside of their division this season, but the Cardinals' only two losses were on the road. ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and ESPN Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss break down the matchup:

McClure: Josh, I remember watching Drew Stanton a few times in college and while he was with the Lions. My best memory of him is when he did the "Dougie" after scoring a touchdown against the Bears. I know he's no Carson Palmer, but what are his capabilities as the starter?

Weinfuss: I think we're seeing it. Stanton can beat defenses that don't bring a lot of pressure when he has a healthy offense. But that's to be expected when you consider his history: Stanton has started just nine NFL games. Even though he has been in the league for eight years, his on-field experience is less than that of Oakland's Derek Carr and the same as that of Jacksonville's Blake Bortles. Stanton tends to struggle under pressure because he doesn't always make good decisions on the run -- and then there's the issue with him running. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians doesn't like seeing him take off, and Stanton was not efficient on the move Sunday in Seattle. I'd expect him to do well against the Falcons as long as he stays in the pocket and slows down. He was moving a little too fast for the offense against the Seahawks, but overall I think we're seeing the real Drew Stanton.

Matt Ryan is on pace for another 4,000-yard season. Julio Jones is on pace for a career year. Roddy White can easily hit 1,000 yards. How frustrating of a year has this been for them? Do you think they can still be as productive against the Cardinals' secondary?

McClure: Definitely frustrating because they all know they're capable of being more explosive on offense than they've been. Yes, the Falcons still rank in the top 10 in passing offense (seventh at 269.5 yards per game) and boast the league's third best red-zone offense (69.23 percent), but they've left some opportunities on the field. Jones and White have had their share of drops, and Ryan is coming off arguably his worst game of the season when it comes to precision. I actually asked offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter whether he thought his offense could get down the field against Patrick Peterson, Antonio Cromartie and the rest of the Cardinals' secondary, and he pointed to the number of explosive plays they've given up. It does surprise me to see Arizona ranked 25th in passing yards allowed per game, but I'm guessing some of that has to do with making teams one-dimensional by totally stuffing the run. I do expect Koetter to be more aggressive with his play calling and to challenge Peterson and others because he believes Ryan-to-Jones is a deadly combination. But I'm not sure Ryan will have adequate time to throw against that punishing defensive front, particularly with the makeover along the offensive line. If Ryan can find a way to mirror the quick, controlled attack the offense showed against the Lions in London, I think the Falcons will have a chance. The Falcons have to be more creative than ever offensively.

You wrote the other day about the importance of veteran receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Regardless of his status for Sunday, could you talk about how the Cardinals would compensate without him and how the offense would flow with him?

Weinfuss: Well, a second week without Fitzgerald is sure to be better than the Cardinals' first. Arizona looked like it didn't know what to do without Fitzgerald in the lineup, and it cost the team dearly in its 19-3 loss to Seattle on Sunday. If a second time around happens this weekend, I'd expect Michael Floyd to be the centerpiece of the offense. Arians admitted he didn't do a very good job of getting Floyd involved, which was evident by him not having a catching in two targets. If Fitzgerald returns for Sunday, the offense tends to work better when he's involved early. Defenses are well aware of what Fitzgerald is capable of, so when he gets a pass or two in the first quarter, defenses tend to shift their focus to Fitz, which opens up the run game and the deep game.

The Falcons are allowing an exorbitant amount of yards per game, and, coincidentally enough, the Cardinals haven't been able to gain many yards lately. What's been the overriding factor for Atlanta's porous defense? What do the Falcons need to do to change it?

McClure: The Falcons indeed have the league's worst defense from a statistical standpoint in allowing 409.9 yards per game. They rank 30th in sacks per pass play and have allowed several quarterbacks to make plays on the move. They also rank 30th on third down, meaning they're not getting off the field. And they've given up 13 plays of 40-plus yards, meaning they're prone to the explosive play. There have been times when defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has been aggressive with his pressures but other instances when you wonder why the Falcons are being so passive and playing such soft zones. Injuries haven't helped matters, although the Falcons hope to activate starting strong safety William Moore (shoulder) off short-term injured reserve this week. Being without starting cornerback Robert Alford (broken wrist) will hurt again because his replacement, Robert McClain, struggled miserably last week. Fortunately for the Falcons, there's a tremendous difference in facing Stanton rather than Palmer, so I think they'll be able to keep pace -- as long as the offense is clicking and keeping them off the field.

We've laughed before about Darnell Dockett's Twitter habits away from the field. On the field, it doesn't look as if they've missed him up front. Can you talk about the defense as a whole and how it has managed to hold teams to 17.7 points per game? And is Peterson truly a game-changer?

Weinfuss: It's pretty incredible when you think about the guys they lost, isn't it? The Cardinals' defense has been successful mainly because of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. His schemes have been working -- and quite well, to boot -- because they adapt to the personnel. He's not one of those coaches who makes players, regardless of ability and skill levels, fit what he does. He fits what they do, which is why they've been so effective at holding teams to 17.7 points and stopping the run. Another thing Bowles does a lot of is blitz. He loves bringing pressure as much as the players do. When he arrived in 2013, he kept a 3-4 front but changed how the line handled gap assignment. He gave them all single-gap responsibilities, which has allowed them to pin their ears back and go. They've been able to do more of that this year because of the Cardinals' cornerbacks, specifically Peterson. I'd say he's a game-changer, but not because of the reasons you'd think this year. He and Cromartie have been put on islands by Bowles, and each has taken away half the field. It seems as if Peterson is getting picked on this year, which you'd expect after he signed a mega extension and when he is considered one of the top corners in the league. Peterson also has a tendency to give too much room between himself and the receiver, which has allowed for some unnecessary big plays. But he's still able to shut down an entire side of the field.

Around these parts, there's some interest in what happens with Falcons coach Mike Smith because the job seems almost perfect for Bowles. In reality, how much danger is Smith in of losing his job? And if he is let go, would the Falcons be interested in a defense-oriented coach?

McClure: I think it's no secret Smith is on the hot seat, particularly after the Falcons blew that 21-point lead against the Lions in London. Clock-management issues against Detroit and last week against Cleveland only increased the scrutiny surrounding Smith. That being said, the pathetic state of the NFC South still gives Smith a chance to salvage the season with a playoff berth. If the Falcons somehow make the playoffs and happen to win a first-round home playoff game, maybe Smith saves his job. But without the postseason, I don't see Smith sticking around. I think Bowles would be an outstanding candidate for any head-coaching spot around the league. I also think with Ryan and Jones, you'd want to hire an offensive-minded coach. I'd start with Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.